HORMIGUEROS, Puerto Rico -- A Puerto Rican nationalist leader wanted in the 1983 robbery of an armored truck in Connecticut died during an FBI stakeout, ending his 15-year hideout that made him a hero to the island's radical independence activists.
The FBI found the body of Filiberto Ojeda Rios, 72, in a farmhouse in the western town of Hormigueros, Police Chief Pedro Toledo said. A gun battle occurred as FBI agents closed in to arrest Ojeda Rios on Friday, but Toledo said he did not know how Ojeda Rios died.
A law enforcement agent, speaking on condition of anonymity, and Hector Pesquera, president of the Hostosiano independence movement, said Friday that Ojeda Rios was shot and killed.
The FBI called the office of Puerto Rico's governor, Anibal Acevedo Vila, yesterday to report Ojeda Rios's death, Toledo said.
FBI spokesman Louis Feliciano refused to comment on Toledo's remarks. Earlier yesterday, the FBI had said it did not know whether Ojeda Rios was alive. The FBI said agents arrested Ojedo Rios's wife, Elma Rosado Barbosa, who was unharmed.
Ojeda Rios had been on the run since 1990, when he cut off an electronic monitoring bracelet and went into hiding while awaiting trial for the robbery of $7.2 million from the Wells Fargo depot in West Hartford.
The robbery is considered domestic terrorism, because the money was used to fund activities by the Puerto Rican nationalist Macheteros, or Cane Cutters. Only about $80,000 has been recovered.
The Macheteros also asserted they used the money to buy presents for impoverished Hispanic children in the United States and Puerto Rico. After the robbery, gifts from anonymous senders turned up in several Hispanic neighborhoods.
Although Puerto Ricans have argued for decades about their island's relationship with the United States, most were unified in criticizing the FBI's handling of the stakeout.
Independence activists hailed Ojeda Rios as a martyr whose death would unify their splintered and marginalized movement.
''I always said that when they went to arrest him, they would have to kill him," said Juan Mari Bras, a veteran independence leader. ''I am proud of his heroism and his valor."
The Independence Party's president, Ruben Berrios, a critic of the violent tactics of the Macheteros, called Ojeda Rios's death a tragedy and condemned the FBI's actions.
''This tramples on the dignity of the Puerto Rican people," Berrios said at a news conference.
The robbery became the most notorious act by the Macheteros, who have been largely inactive for more than a decade. The group also took credit for the 1981 bombing of 11 military planes at a US National Guard base in Puerto Rico. Two Marines were killed.
Acevedo Vila, who supports keeping Puerto Rico's status as a US commonwealth, criticized the FBI for not disclosing the stakeout. Members of the prostatehood New Progressive party also criticized the FBI for its silence.
''I energetically demand that federal authorities end the silence they have maintained," the governor said.
Ojeda Rios was one of four men still wanted for the Wells Fargo robbery. He was released on bail in 1988 after about three years in prison awaiting trial in Connecticut. While in hiding, he was convicted in 1992 on charges of robbery, conspiracy, and transportation of stolen money, and he was sentenced to 55 years in prison.
The FBI is also offering a $1 million reward for information leading to the capture of Victor Manuel Gerena, a former Wells Fargo guard who allegedly injected two other guards with a sleeping substance to facilitate the robbery.